Tag Archives: Eric Johnson

Earnest Words

Importance 06
1980’s production of “The Importance of Being Earnest” in the Guignol with Eric Johnson on the right and some duffer in spats on the left.

Janie and I had a lovely night at the theater Saturday night. We watched a crisp and energetic cast perform Oscar Wilde’s brilliant “The Importance of Being Earnest” at Athens West Theatre. If you can make it for their last weekend, it will be one of your happiest nights for the year.

I admired the efforts of Shayne Brakefield as a sometimes befuddled, often pompous local reverend (think Robert Morley in African Queen with a pencil-thin mustache), Janet Scott in full sail as Lady Bracknell, and Paul Thomas as the butler(s); mysterious, disheveled, inscrutable, vaguely obedient, barely competent, and clearly the mind behind every scene……not.

I have worked with all these actors before.
I know their gifts…and cherish them.
I know their habits and peccadilloes…and cherish them as well.

Last night I participated in a reading of Robert Penn Warren’s ALL THE KING’S MEN on the Carrick Theater stage at Transylvania with Joe Gatton, Sherman Fracher, Ellie Clark, Tom Phillips, Mark Mozingo, and Geoffrey Cobb Nelson.

I have worked with Joe, Sherman, Ellie, and Tom before.

Joe, Sherman, Ellie, Tom, Shayne, Janet, and Paul…
Together we’ve been to Dracula’s Transylvania, New Jersey, New York, a Midwest Mega-Church, Agincourt, Aquitaine, Deep South Mississippi, the magical forests of Shakespeare, Deep South Alabama, Upper-Peninsula Michigan, Russia, London, Pennsyvania, Scotland. We’ve been husbands and wives and daughters and sons and kings and vassals and brothers and sisters to each other.

We have history.

We have vocabulary.

When we step on stage with each other we have a big head-start to share with an audience; a dialogue that, in some cases, has been going on for decades.

These two recent stage experiences prompted me into a memory (what doesn’t these days?) of an early 80’s Guignol production of “The Importance of Being Earnest”. This was, in retrospect, a wonderful cast for me; Eric Johnson, Martha Campbell, Walter Tunis, Lisa Thomas, Georgia Ferrell, Tim McClure, Ann Dalzell, and Paul Thomas (once more playing the butler – murderous, scheming, ever-expanding……not).

This production was directed by Dr. James Rodgers, and he created an atmosphere playful, quick, and creative, but fierce in language…a happy culture in which Wilde’s mots, bon et rapide, could fly.

And fly they did. At the first table read, our Lady Bracknell encountered the word “indecorous” in the script. She paused and inquired; “Is that pronounced; ‘IN-DUH-COH-RUS’?” To which another cast member replied; “No, and if you say it that way, that’s where you’ll be.”

I suspect Oscar would’ve been proud.

Vocabulary matters.

Atticus vs the Sound Effects

Mockingbird 01Summer outdoor theatre is a miraculous thing.

The miracle happens about six months after the summer theatre season, in the depths of winter. There is a moment when snow is on the ground and the wind’s a’howlin’. There is a moment on the ninth straight day of no sun at all, a moment when the clothing layers reach seven, when soup sounds real good once too often. At that less-than-golden moment, the summer night you spent on stage the previous year becomes pure gold.

That memory is purged of the heat. The roasted rehearsal on that concrete slab on that Saharan Saturday morning in full costume evaporates from your recall.

The bugs (many of which unsuccessfully screen-tested for the classic film Them and still harbored virulent stage revenge dreams) that you ducked, swatted, and often swallowed during performances were forgotten.

The memory of the “dead characters’ cocktail lounge” that grew in unholy influence during the run of the show until the curtain calls became wobbly bows from which returning to a fully upright position was far from certain, became quaint instead of alarming.

Rain? Lightning? Make-up that melted faster than it could be applied? Hecklers?

All vanished…erased…never happened.

It’s a miracle.

All that’s left is;

– Riding a bike to rehearsal.
– Humidity and iambic pentameter – a remarkably compatible combo.
– Bright, pretty, scantily-clad actresses.
– Loud voices.
– Large, well-lubricated audiences.
– Stars and moons (one per night) and pool of artificial light in which to speak beautiful words.

That’s all that remains.

It’s a miracle.

However, some of the non-miraculous is worth remembering as well.

In the summer of 1999, I was lucky enough to play Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird for the Lexington Shakespeare Festival. My luck expanded to include the fact that I was working with many of my favorite people in the world; Jeff Sherr, Eric Johnson, Anitra Brumagen, Sidney Shaw, Walter May, Glenn Thompson, Michael Thompson… It was a real good time.

Most of the time.

The first act of the show ends with Atticus’ closing statement to the jury. It’s about a ten-minute summation – inspirational and dramatic as hell – an actor’s dream.

On one night’s performance I arose to give the speech to a crowd of 1,000+ people (yes, most likely well-lubricated). As I walked downstage I heard the medivac helicopter approaching and I knew from previous festival experience that the flight path would be directly over our stage and loud. I took a dramatic pause before commencing the speech that exactly matched the flight path of the copter. Mrs. Leasor didn’t raise any fools.

I plunged into the speech and was achieving some momentum when, about five minutes in, I heard the sirens of the ambulance go ripping through the night.

At minute eight, the low-flying private plane rattled over and as I was winding up for the socko finish, you could hear the freight train moanin’ lonesome through the night.

Mercifully, the speech and the act ended, the lights went dark, and the cast trooped offstage. As I walked off the stage, Eric Johnson was exiting directly behind me and I heard him mumble; “Well, that was certainly a tribute to the combustible engine.”

I wept.

Just Act the Hell Out of It

In the theatre, I have been blessed to work with inspiring directors. Many of them seemed to enter and re-enter my life at times when they could fulfill dual roles; stage director and off-stage mentor. Just as I could not have become the on-stage kings, fools, lawyers, doctors, and errant knights required, so I could not have become the geezer I am today (for better or worse) without their genuine care and, at times, curious advice.

Perhaps preeminent among them, if for no other reason than my bewildered youth at the time, was Charles Dickens.

That was his real name.

Charles was my advisor at UK. On Tuesday, during the “advising” session required before classes began on Monday, Charles filled out my roster of classes (my input was restricted to an awed and tiny “ok”), and informed me that my part-time job at the public library wouldn’t impede my freshman theatre activities since they didn’t cast freshmen anyway…but that I should attend and participate in the Sunday auditions of the season’s opening show (which he was directing) for the experience.

I responded; “ok”.

Monday morning, at 9:00, I attended my first college class (Physics: 101 – we learned to bend water with a comb) and was cast in my first show (“Playboy of the Western World”). I was slack-jawed at my Physics classmates (“Is that real water?”), and dazzled by my sometimes shabby but always quick cast mates in rehearsal. My path was clear.

That was in the fall of 1969.

In the spring, Charles cast me in his elaborate production of Shakespeare’s “Measure for Measure”. By then, I was a complete “gym rat” in the theatre. Every day began and ended in the Fine Arts Building; the Guignol Theatre, the Laboratory Theatre (now the Briggs), the Green Room, the Scene Shop, the Costume Shop…even an occasional classroom. I lurked in every rehearsal I could find.

During “Measure”, Charles was deep into his Peter-Brook-THE-EMPTY-SPACE period. I may have learned half of what I know about the theatre listening to him coach actors in these rehearsals. One night, Bill Hayes, a nice actor and UK alumnus brought in by Charles to play “Angelo”, paused rehearsal to question the meaning of the line; “Let’s write ‘good angel’ on the Devil’s horn, tis not the Devil’s crest.” Charles sprang to the stage and took Bill’s script and they pondered…and pondered… Finally Charles handed the script back to Bill with the profound instruction; “Just act the hell out of it.”

Just act the hell out of it?

I had fallen in love with Shakespeare with “Measure for Measure”.

I knew what that line meant!

I could say that line!!

I could change people’s lives with that line!!!

I swore if I ever got the chance…

Well, of course, having sworn, I did, 23 years later.

In 1993, the uber-smart Ave Lawyer cast me as “Angelo” in her production of “Measure”. This production featured a remarkable cast; Eric Johnson, Sidney Shaw, Holly Hazelwood Brady, Laurie Genet Preston, Jeff Sherr, Joe Gatton, Glenn Thompson, Donna Ison, Karen Czarnecki, Spencer Christiansen… WOW!

I had my chance.

I said my line.

I acted the hell out of it.

I got up the next day and went to my day job.

A Dream Cast…in a Nightmare

I read an article about Woodford County’s latest show; ENCHANTED APRIL. It looks like a dream cast. I can’t wait to see it next week. It reminded me of another dream cast.

Imagine, if you will, a show in Lexington with a cast consisting of Trish Clark, Jane Dewey, Eric Johnson, Kevin Hardesty and Paul Thomas.

Sweeter than sweet. If you’re the director of that cast your duties are basically to turn on the lights at rehearsal, yes?

Now imagine that show being not so hot.

In fact, imagine it being thoroughly shredded by the Herald’s reviewer.

As Tom Waits so elegantly says,

“Impossible you say?

Beyond the realm of possibility?

Nah!”

It can and did happen. I have the scars.

All it takes is a director with little directorial experience, even less experience with improvisational farce, and no real vision beyond “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” (I’m reminded of Mickey Rooney’s immortal query; “Hey! Why don’t we put on a show!!”).

If you’re lookin’ for a director of your production of BULLSHOT CRUMMOND with exactly that resumé, I’m your guy.

This was back in the early, early years of Actors Guild when they were performing in the basement of Levas’ Restaurant on Vine Street. The cast worked hard. Kevin played about eight different characters. Eric played two, including one duet scene with himself (a dream come true for him, I’m sure). Trish was ultra-sultry. Jane was innocent and dizzy. Paul was checking out the locations of the exits. All were trying to figure how to get new agents when they had no agents to begin with.

What can I say?

The show seemed funny to me. (BUZZER! Thank you for playing, Mr. Leasor.)

Then came opening night and we played our farce to an audience of seven (7) (VII)…plus the reviewer (Tom Carter).

It was a long night’s journey into sad.

(Fade to…)

The next morning I awoke to the devastating review. Tom summed things up by saying “Leasor has done his friends the disservice of casting them in roles for which they are not suited.”

Harsh.

My wife, Janie removed the poison/razor/gun from my hand and convinced me that though life was obviously no longer worth living it was still necessary to do so as we still owed a lot of money on the house.

Therefore, my next concern was how to help my cast through this undeserved (on their part) catastrophe.

I called an acquaintance who owned a t-shirt shop, set the wheels of foolishness in motion, and that night each member of the cast found, at their make-up station a bright red t-shirt that read “I am NOT Roger Leasor’s friend, please cast me”.

It seemed to help break the ice.

After that evening’s show, Eric went out for his post-show “snack” to Columbia’s Steakhouse (that Steak-for-Two and a Diego Salad always serves well when it’s time for a little something to take the edge off at midnight) resplendent in his new t-shirt. Guess who was standing at the bar…none other than the reviewer himself. Eric, of course, diplomat that he is, made sure Tom saw the shirt…less than 24 hours after the review was written!

Lexington’s a small town at heart. I saw Tom at lunch the next week at the Saratoga (the “Toga” always served well when a wedge and a chicken-fried steak was needed to take the edge off at noon). He was gracious and impressed with the alacrity of our response (if not our show) and life in our small town went on.

Sometimes it all falls into place, deserved or not.

A Geezer Remembers; Play-by-Play by Gene Arkle

That Champ UK 01
“Coach” Gene Arkle center

It’s not an everyday occurrence to get a chance to act in a play or musical more than once. I don’t mean multiple performances like four weekends of The Importance of Being Earnest or two years spent touring dinner theaters in Everybody Loves Opal. I’m talking about separate productions of the same work. It’s hard enough to land an opportunity to do a play once!

I’ve done The King and I twice (different roles) and Measure for Measure twice (different roles).

Three times I’ve played the role of Tom Daley in That Championship Season. All three were successful productions. The first was at Studio Players (mid-70’s), the second at the University of Kentucky (early 80’s), and the third was with Phoenix Group (1992).

The second production is the one that prompted this reminiscence.

It was directed by Joe Ferrell (this is where I first met Joe) and featured Paul Thomas, Dr. Jim Rodgers (as an actor!), Eric Johnson, myself…and Gene Arkle. We were performing in the Laboratory Theatre in the Fine Arts Building. A few years later this theater was renamed the “Briggs Theatre”.

The play concerns the reunion of the remnants (four players and their coach) of the 1955 Pennsylvania High School Championship Team. Gene played the coach, the rest of us were the players.

Side note…

Jim Rodgers doesn’t act often but he’s a fine actor. Paul Thomas acts more often and he too is a fine actor. However, as basketball players…well…they are fine actors.

We used to warm-up each night with a real, live, no-batteries-included basketball.

We would whip it around the stage (yes, whip it…work with me…I speak though the happy filter of memory here) for ten or fifteen minutes with Joe Ferrell and Assistant Director Ralph Pate watching in terror and then begin rehearsal.

While whipping the basketball around, when Eric passed to Jim, he would, with great regularity and malice aforethought, put a forward spin on his bounce pass. Now, Jim is a master of the English language, but English on a basketball was pure Greek to him. The ball would, with great regularity and malice aforethought, sail under Jim’s outstretched hands and strike him everywhere (yes, everywhere) except those hands. Jim would emit a polite “oof”, Eric would giggle and cover his mouth, Paul would look for a place to hide and we would continue our warm-up. It was a marvel and I’m sure it somehow made us a better team.

End of side note.

The big moment in the play comes after my character has fled the scene. The remaining team members are drunk and demoralized and the Coach must rally them. He does this with a wonderful long speech. At the end of the speech, the Coach places a recording (remember them?) on his record-player (remember them??) of the play-by-play call of the final game-winning shot of their championship game. It is a stirring moment. The team members respond, I return to the fold and we lurch to the end of the show.

The closing performance of our show was going as planned until this big moment.

I was offstage…listening…thinking…of basketballs and trophies and booze and betrayals…and whether my post show snack would be a cheddarburger from Charlie Brown’s or a disastrous pile of hash browns from Tolly Ho…in short, I was preparing (as an actor must) for my next entrance.

Gene was on a roll. His speech was indeed stirring. He built it to a climax and marched to the record-player and slapped that record on.

Silence ensued…

…and continued to ensue.

Finally, Gene said “I’ve been meaning to get this thing fixed.”

Offstage, I’m saying thanks and hosannas to every god known to man that I’m not onstage.

Gene took a deep breath and continued, “As you know, the game ended like this…”

And he proceeded to recreate the entire play-by-play himself!

It was absurd. It was heroic. It was a game saver.

We were saved………..by our Coach.

As usual, there is truth in dem dere memory, but I can’t recall just how much.

I miss Gene.

A Geezer Remembers 1987…A Critical Response

Imagine, if you will, a show in Lexington with a cast consisting of Trish Clark, Jane Dewey, Eric Johnson, Kevin Hardesty and Paul Thomas. Sweeter than sweet. If you’re the director of that cast your duties are basically to turn on the lights at rehearsal, right?

Now imagine that show being not so hot.

In fact, imagine it being thoroughly shredded by the Herald’s reviewer.

As Tom Waits so elegantly says; “Impossible you say? Beyond the realm of possibility? Nah!”

It can and did happen. I have the scars.

All it takes is a director with little directorial experience, even less experience with improvisational farce, and NO real vision beyond “Wouldn’t it be cool if…?” (I’m reminded of Mickey Rooney’s immortal query; “Hey! Why don’t we put on a show!!”)

If you are lookin’ for a director of YOUR production of BULLSHOT CRUMMOND with exactly that resume, I’m your guy.

This was back in the early, early years of Actors Guild when they were performing in the basement of Levas’ Restaurant on Vine Street. The cast worked hard. Kevin played about eight different characters. Eric played two, including one duet scene with himself (a dream come true, I’m sure). Trish was ultra-sultry. Jane was innocent and dizzy. Paul was checking out the locations of the exits. All were trying to figure how to get new agents when they had no agents to begin with.

What can I say? The show seemed funny to me. (BUZZER! Thank you for playing, Mr. Leasor.)

Then came opening night and we played our farce to an audience of seven (7) (VII)…plus the reviewer (Tom Carter).

It was a long night’s journey into sad.

(Fade to…)

The next morning I awoke to the devastating review. Tom summed things up by saying “Leasor has done his friends the disservice of casting them in roles for which they are not suited.”

Ma-a-a-n!

Janie removed the poison/razor/gun from my hand and convinced me that though life was obviously no longer worth living it was still necessary to do so as we still owed a lot of money on the house.

Therefore, my next concern was how to help my cast through this undeserved (on their part) catastrophe.

I called an acquaintance who owned a t-shirt shop, set the wheels of foolishness in motion, and that night each member of the cast found, at their make-up station a bright red t-shirt that read “I am NOT Roger Leasor’s friend, please cast me”.

It seemed to help break the ice.

After that evening’s show, Eric went out for his post-show “snack” to Columbia’s Steakhouse (that Steak-for-Two and a Diego Salad always serves well when it’s time for a little something to take the edge off at midnight) resplendent in his new t-shirt. Guess who was standing at the bar…none other than the reviewer himself. Eric, of course, diplomat that he is, made certain Tom saw the shirt…less than 24 hours after the review was written!

Lexington’s a small town at heart. I saw Tom at lunch the next week at the Saratoga (the “Toga” always served well when a wedge and a chicken-fried steak was needed to take the edge off at noon). He was gracious and impressed with the alacrity of our response (if not our show) and life in our small town went on.

Sometimes you catch a break, deserved or not.